“Orange Is The New Black” Does Not Need To Tell Male Prisoners’ Stories
This past Monday, The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky took it upon himself to complain that “Orange is the New Black” inadequately represents the male prison population. Ohhhh boy.
To be clear, I agree with Berlatsky that aggression and violence in and against men is viewed, in our culture, as an inevitability, especially when those men are black. Anyone who thinks that America’s prison system doesn’t constitute an extended form of black slavery is blind. Imprisonment weighs heavily on men, especially men of color, and once a person has contact with the prison system it’s exceedingly difficult to extract them from it because prison is punitive rather than rehabilitative and our laws make it hard for them to live normal and productive lives after they’re released. And in the first place, many men of color wind up in jail for non-violent crimes because of our anti-drug initiatives, while many violent criminals aren’t pursued, which is, to say the very least, basely unjust. I recommend you click and read through all of those links, because our prison system is about as big of a civil rights failure as slavery was, and most of us are living in ignorance of it.
That being said, I’m only being mildly facetious when I ask, has Noah Berlatsky ever watched “Oz”? You know, that wildly successful, critically-acclaimed, foundational, first-ever HBO series? Granted, it’s not up to date for today, but to claim that the onus is on “Orange is the New Black” to represent the male prison population seems a little farcical when before “OITNB” aired, “Oz” and “Prison Break” had already completed their runs a long time ago.
The issue that I take with Berlatsky’s critique is that there are so few successful television shows that come from a distinctly female perspective, and he feels that because this particular story is told from a female perspective, it’s discriminating against men. This point of view operates on the fallacy that I addressed when I wrote about some men’s attitudes toward literature written by women: That stories from a male point of view are universal and representative of everyone, and directly relatable to women. Therefore, stories told from women’s points of view are unnecessary at best and discriminatory at worst.
I didn’t relate with Walter White. I don’t relate with Tyrion Lannister — and, let’s be honest, despite the voluminous amount of female storytelling in the Song of Ice and Fire book series, the show has operated mostly from the points of view of Tyrion, Tywin, and Jaime Lannister, Ned Stark, Stannis Baratheon, and Jon Snow, the female exception being Daenerys Targaryen. “Mad Men”? Please. “House of Cards”? Nope. And while I’m going to look at the whole genre of television and say “We need more and better female representation,” I’m not going to look at each of these really excellent shows and claim that they’ve failed at storytelling because they didn’t directly inject feminist politics or good female representation into their storylines. Because really, did anyone care that meth addiction affects so many people that there is no specific set of demographics for it, but “Breaking Bad” chose only to tell the story of meth addiction through the eyes of Jesse Pinkman, a white man? No, they didn’t. That wasn’t the business the show was really engaged in.
It’s likewise not “OITNB”’s business to display the full and complete picture of the prison experience in America. I would like to see a major network show, or a Netflix show, about the prison system as it really is, because that would be a powerful catalyst for change. But “Orange is the New Black” is based on a book written by a woman about her experiences with other women in a women’s prison. Berlatsky shows his hand when he expresses his distaste for the tragic melodramas of the inmates’ pasts on “OITNB” and then calls the tragic melodrama “a signficantly gendered genre.” Precisely: If he dislikes the fact that the show represents women more than it represents men, and he dislikes genres that are historically female-dominated, he’s expressing an intolerance for women’s stories told in feminine ways. Or an intolerance for women, potato-potahto.
It’s not “irresponsible” to have a woman-centric show on television, certainly not more irresponsible than it’s been for the majority of television shows to be based around either men or women’s feelings about men (hello, “Sex and the City”). Women and our stories are expected to be vessels for male representation, as if we and our lives are supposed to be acceptable and pleasing to everyone, while men and their stories aren’t put under the same scrutiny. “Orange is the New Black” is hardly a perfect show or my favorite, but for the sake of women having something even resembling the same voice that men do on television I’m glad to leave it as it is.